Emotional Intelligence in Leadership: Your Most Important Asset

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What’s emotional intelligence? How important is emotional intelligence in leadership? How can you create an emotionally-intelligent team and organization?

Business leaders are usually the biggest believers in cutting emotions out of business. But, it’s not only possible to lead with both your head and your heart, it’s vital. Fortunately, there are practical ways to increase your emotional intelligence and create an emotionally-intelligent team.

Keep reading for a comprehensive look at emotional intelligence in leadership.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) can be defined as the ability to understand and manage our own emotions while also being able to understand and influence the emotions of others. This is how it’s defined in Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee.

According to the authors, emotionally-intelligent leaders practice four main skills. Let’s take a look at each.

1. Self-Awareness

Leaders with emotional intelligence practice self-awareness. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman defines self-awareness as the ability to recognize a feeling as it’s happening to you. In Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves also define self-awareness as your ability to identify your emotions as they occur, but they add that it’s also your ability to recognize your tendencies during different scenarios. In Primal Leadership, the authors expand the definition of self-awareness to include the ability to understand what caused your emotions and how they might impact others.

2. Self-Management

Leaders with emotional intelligence practice self-management. In Emotional Intelligence 2.0, self-management is defined as the ability to use your self-awareness to manage your emotions and stay in control of your behavior. People with high levels of self-management control reactive behavior, don’t allow their emotions to dictate their decisions, find peace with uncertainty, navigate complex situations patiently, see projects through to the end regardless of frustration, and focus on long-term development.

3. Social Awareness

Leaders with emotional intelligence practice social awareness. This is the ability to identify emotions in other people and understand the reasons behind them, as defined in both Primal Leadership and Emotional Intelligence 2.0. The authors of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 explain that people with high levels of social awareness give others the opportunity to speak, actively listen, pick up on cues that reveal emotion, take in information without bias, adapt to the emotional climate, and develop empathy for others.

4. Relationship Management

Leaders with emotional intelligence practice relationship management. This is the use of your self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness to develop your relationships with other people. People with high levels of relationship management connect with a multitude of people, interact with people frequently, find the benefits in every relationship, create an environment that promotes discussion and connection, handle stressful situations well, and develop a strong rapport with coworkers—even with people they do not inherently agree with.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

A study done in the 1970s surveyed 250 executives and found that most of them thought their jobs required intellect but not emotion, “heads but not hearts.” However, the authors of Primal Leadership argue that the most important trait for a leader to have is emotional intelligence.

Emotionally-Intelligent Leaders Create Harmony

Leaders with emotional intelligence are critical for group success because they create something the authors call resonance—an atmosphere where members of the group are emotionally synchronized. We’ll refer to this effect as harmony. When a group has harmony, they’re able to reach their maximum potential for collaboration, productivity, and performance—the vital components for success.

Psychologists and behavioral scientists have proven time and again that groups that are emotionally in sync always outperform their counterparts who lack interpersonal relationships and open communication.

Only emotionally-intelligent leaders can cultivate emotionally-intelligent followers. Leaders are able to influence their group’s emotional state because it’s human instinct to take emotional cues from the most authoritative person in the group. So, the leader’s emotions will impact how the group feels and acts; therefore, success hinges on how emotionally intelligent the leader is. Experts call this phenomenon “emotional contagion.” Research shows that people’s moods might be as easy to catch as their germs, and this is extremely common in groups because the attitude of the leader is likely to shape the attitudes of team members. Only leaders with emotional intelligence can create emotionally-intelligent teams and organizations.

How to Increase Your Emotional Intelligence

Considering the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership, it’s well worth investing time and effort into increasing your own EI. The authors of Primal Leadership explain that emotional intelligence is something anyone can learn as long as they’re motivated, committed, and put in a solid effort.

In the remainder of this section, we’ll share tactics that Bradberry and Greaves present in Emotional Intelligence 2.0 that address each of the four skills of EI introduced above.

Developing Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize a feeling as it’s happening to you, as well as the ability to understand what caused your emotions and how they might impact others. Leaders with emotional intelligence explore their emotions, view their emotions and triggers objectively, understand how others see them, and hold themselves accountable. Consider the following tactics to develop self-awareness in each of these categories.

Tactics That Help You Explore Your Emotions

#1: Understand the physical effects of your emotions. Close your eyes, and examine physical factors such as your heartbeat, breath, and muscle tension. Recall a memory that elicits a strong emotional response. Notice the way your body changes (e.g., tightened stomach, clenched jaw). Recognizing physical responses allows you to quickly identify your emotions in day-to-day life.

#2: Recognize your emotions in art. Find a specific moment in a movie, TV show, or book, and observe the emotions and behaviors of the character in that moment. Ask yourself: 

  • Have I ever felt this way? 
  • Why do these emotions resonate with me? 
  • Do I recognize any of these behaviors in myself?

#3: Notice how you feel or behave when stressed. Use that information to determine when you need to relax and recharge.

#4: Find the reason behind your emotion. Emotions act as a guide. Assessing why you’re feeling what you’re feeling helps you resolve any problems that are causing unwanted feelings. Questions to ask yourself include:

  • When was the last time I felt this emotion?
  • Does a specific person or scenario trigger this emotion?

Tactics That Help You View Your Emotions and Triggers Objectively

#5: Don’t judge your emotions as “good” or “bad.” Judging a feeling only puts more emotions (such as shame or pride) on top of that feeling. This keeps your original emotion from developing and muddies your current state. Identify the emotion, but reserve judgment. This lets the emotion arise and fade away without further complication.

#6: Don’t let a “bad mood” dictate your behavior or decisions. When a bad mood arises, remind yourself that this mood is temporary. If you allow your bad mood to run its course, it will pass. When in a bad mood, try not to make important decisions as your emotional state will likely influence your decision-making process.

#7: Don’t let a “good mood” dictate your behavior or decisions. Good moods can corrupt your perspective just as much as bad moods. Good moods create rose-colored glasses that prevent you from objectively assessing decisions and may lead you to rush into things without thinking them through.

#8: Know your triggers. Everyone has people and behaviors that push their buttons. Knowing what sparks an emotional response from you allows you to strategize for those situations. Be specific when noting your triggers. Identify people, activities, and environments that irk you. Then, mentally prepare yourself for those situations. 

#9: Keep a journal of your triggers and emotions. Write down triggers as you discover them. Then, write down what emotional responses these types of situations create. This allows you to look back at past events and recognize patterns.

Tactics That Help You Understand How Others See You

#10: Be specific about the message you send to the world. The clothes you wear, your physical demeanor, and your facial expressions all send specific messages and usually reflect your internal emotions. These messages determine how colleagues interact with you.

#11: Acknowledge the “ripple effect” of your emotions. Your behavior affects everyone around you. You can use your emotions as tools for growth or weapons for destruction. Observe how your behavior affects everyone around you, and use those observations to guide your behavior.

Tactics That Help You Hold Yourself Accountable

#12: View situations and your behavior objectively. Objectivity allows you to view a situation without the lens of emotion. Take time to step away from an emotional or heated situation and allow your feelings to settle. Then, take in all of the information surrounding the situation and make a decision based on logic.

#13: Remember and respect your values. It’s easy to lose sight of your core values when life gets busy. If you allow emotions to overwhelm your beliefs in these moments, you’ll make decisions that don’t reflect the ideals you hold dear. Think about your core values and state them explicitly.

#14: Embrace discomfort. Avoiding painful feelings only creates a short-term solution and exacerbates problems further down the line. Dive into emotions and work through them. Once you understand why you’re uncomfortable, you can handle the uncomfortable emotion more effectively.

#15: Invite feedback. When it comes to examining your behavior, you’re inherently biased. Reach out to other people to get an outside perspective on the ways you respond to certain situations or people.

Developing Self-Management

Self-management is the ability to use your self-awareness to manage your emotions and stay in control of your behavior. Leaders with emotional intelligence collect their thoughts, relax and recharge, seek external support, and are prepared and positive. Consider the following tactics to develop self-management in each of these categories.

Tactics That Help You Collect Your Thoughts

#1: Focus on your breath. Your brain requires oxygen to function properly. Especially when you’re stressed, breathe deeply enough to re-engage your rational brain and calm your body down.

#2: Count to ten. When you feel yourself getting frustrated, breathe and count to ten. This gives your body a chance to calm down and your brain a moment to develop a rational outlook on the situation.

#3: Take time before you respond. Patience is a key factor in staying in control of your emotions and making rational decisions. Step away from the situation for a while before responding, ideally a day or longer.

#4: Stay in control of your body language. When your emotions begin to take the reins, you lose control over your body language. When you find yourself beginning to lose control, turn your focus away from your emotional state and toward the task at hand. 

#5: Develop a reason vs. emotion list. Make a two-column list. On one side, list what your emotional brain wants you to do, and, on the other, list what your rational brain wants you to do. Ask yourself two questions:

  • Where is emotion warping my perspective?
  • Where is rationality ignoring key information from my emotions?

#6: Dedicate time to problem-solving. Schedule 15 minutes a day to walk away from your work and problem-solve particular issues. This will help you to make clearer choices and ensure that your feelings aren’t swaying your decision-making process.

Tactics That Help You Relax and Recharge

#7: Laugh and smile. Laughing and smiling send signals to your brain that say, “I am happy.” Smile, even if you’re frustrated. It helps counteract negative feelings and allows you to get through the moment. Also, watch or read material you find enjoyable or funny.

#8: Schedule time to exercise. Exercise increases blood flow and releases chemicals into your brain that recharge your mental battery and strengthen areas that correlate to decision-making, rationality, and organization. Schedule a specific time for physical activity, and stick to it.

#9: Sleep better. Self-management requires focus, energy, and clarity—all of which rely on the brain working as efficiently as possible. To ensure you’re getting restful sleep:

  • Get out in the sun before noon. Twenty minutes of pre-noon direct sunlight helps reset your internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep at night.
  • Shut down electronics two hours before you go to bed. The light of electronics causes your brain to think it’s earlier than it actually is, making it harder to fall asleep.
  • Use your bed only for sleeping. This helps your brain know it’s time to rest when you climb into bed.
  • Don’t drink caffeinated beverages, especially at night.

Tactics That Help You Seek External Support

#10: Talk with a third party. Get an unbiased outside perspective to help you keep things objective and rational as you decipher your emotions and determine the best route forward.

#11: Publicize your goals. When creating goals for yourself, share them and ask other people to hold you accountable.

#12: Learn from everyone. In every situation, you can learn something about how your emotions work and what causes certain feelings to arise.

Tactics That Help You Be Prepared and Positive

#13: Keep your self-talk positive. Self-talk is your inner voice and has a major impact on your emotional state. To avoid negativity and take control of your self-talk:

  • Avoid statements such as “I always” and “I never.”
  • Make factual statements instead of judgments.
  • Don’t play the blame game. Take responsibility when appropriate.

#14: Focus on your freedom, not your limitation. Focusing on what you can do or control allows you to remain calm and collected regardless of the situation. 

#15: Visualize self-management. When you visualize scenarios in which you successfully manage your emotions, new neural pathways develop in the same way that they would if the scenario were real. Visualize with as much detail as possible. Picture yourself managing your emotions to create a positive and effective outcome.

#16: Be prepared for change. You can emotionally prepare for change. This anticipation will keep you from falling prey to sudden emotions such as surprise, fear, or disappointment

Developing Social Awareness

Social awareness is the ability to identify emotions in other people and understand the reasons behind them. Leaders with emotional intelligence listen and learn, observe their surroundings, are present, check their timing, and plan for interaction. Consider the following tactics to develop social awareness in each of these categories.

Tactics That Help You Listen and Learn

#1: Listen attentively. Listening isn’t just about hearing words. Tone, volume, and pacing signal subtext and emotion. Stay completely focused on the conversation at hand. Use the conversation as an opportunity to learn and grow.

#2: Learn and use people’s names. This shows respect and appreciation, and it creates a deeper connection between you and the person you’re speaking with. Tips to remember names more effectively:

  • Make it a habit to greet people using their name every time you see them.
  • Ask the person how to spell their name.

#3: Learn the rules of your environment. Learn how your company operates and what its expectations are. Also, learn the culture and background of your co-workers. To understand the culture, expectations, and rules of your environment:

  • Treat others how they want to be treated.
  • Observe your surroundings, looking for indicators of behavior and expectation.
  • Ask questions, and ask for advice.

#4: Ask others how they perceive you. Once you understand how others perceive you, you can adjust your behaviors to more accurately reflect your intentions.

#5: Practice empathy. Looking at a situation from someone else’s point of view helps you understand their behaviors, gives you the tools to more effectively interact with that person, and identifies issues before they develop.

Tactics That Help You Observe Your Surroundings

#6: Observe body language. This helps you make more informed decisions when interacting with others. Key body language indicators include:

  • Eyes: When someone maintains eye contact, they’re usually being sincere. When they constantly blink or avert their gaze, they’re often uncomfortable or lying. When their eyes seem calm but attentive, they’re probably comfortable talking to you.
  • Smile: When a person is genuinely smiling, the corners of their eyes typically crinkle and their entire face reflects their inner excitement. If the smile seems isolated to the mouth, they’re likely forcing a grin.
  • Body: If it seems like their shoulders are raised or their hands are constantly fidgeting, there’s a good chance they’re stressed or distraught.

#7: Observe emotional cues in films. Because actors usually portray characters in extreme situations, the emotional cues they send are often much clearer than they are in real life. Practice identifying these cues. Try to connect certain behaviors to the emotion being portrayed, and rewatch impactful sections to pick up on specific cues.

#8: Go “people watching.” Observing people going through their daily lives helps you begin to notice patterns of behavior that correlate to internal emotions. Similar to watching a movie, being a third party allows you to remain objective.

#9: Confirm your observations. Sometimes, you can’t read a situation based solely on your observations. In these cases, ask for confirmation. State your observation, then ask if what you’ve noticed is accurate.

#10: Tour your workspace. To develop social awareness, be conscientious of the people in your environment. Take 15 minutes twice a week to walk around your office and make observations. These observations can include:

  • The current demeanor of your colleagues
  • The state of people’s workspaces
  • The people who want to interact vs. those who don’t

Tactics That Help You Be Present

#11: Avoid taking notes during meetings. Taking notes at meetings prevents you from observing the body language of your coworkers and picking up on social cues. Use meetings as an opportunity to observe your coworkers. If you must take notes, stop occasionally to practice your observational skills.

#12: Live in the moment. Allowing the past and future to dictate your day-to-day behavior keeps you in your head and prevents you from observing and interacting with your surroundings. When you’re at work, be at work. When you’re with your family, be with your family. This will help you make more effective connections with those around you.

Tactics That Help You Check Your Timing

#13: Make sure the time is right. Keep the emotional state of the person you’re talking to in mind. If they’re clearly angry or distraught, frame your question in a way that will not further upset them or find a better time to approach them with your issues.

#14: Read the room. Once you’ve mastered reading the emotions of individuals, you can read the mood of entire rooms. Understanding the collective mood of the people around you allows you to give your input in an appropriate and well-timed manner. There are two ways to read the room:

  • Trust your gut. Energies are contagious and will impact you. Use this impact to indicate the emotional state of the group.
  • Follow a guide. For rooms that you’re not familiar with, find someone you trust who has experience with the situation. Follow and observe them, and compare your observations with theirs.

Tactics That Help You Plan for Interaction

#15: Have a “back-pocket question.” When a conversation doesn’t go as planned, it helps to have a question to reestablish a connection with the person you’re speaking to. This question may have nothing to do with the topic at hand, but it puts energy back into a dying conversation as it diverts briefly from an uncomfortable topic to a relatable one.

#16: Make a plan for social gatherings. Preparing for events alleviates stress and allows you to stay present. Different ways to plan for an event include:

  • Making a list of attendees
  • Developing talking points to keep the conversation going
  • Reminding yourself of anything you need to bring with you
  • Setting goals you want to accomplish at the event

Developing Relationship Management

Relationship management is the use of your self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness to develop your relationships with other people. Leaders with emotional intelligence embrace openness, are clear, show respect, and handle tense situations effectively. Consider the following tactics to develop relationship management in each of these categories.

Tactics That Help You Embrace Openness

#1: Be open and take an interest. Explain your background, and share some personal information. This minimizes opportunities for others to misinterpret your behaviors. Also, take an interest in the lives of others. This helps you understand their choices and ensures that you don’t misinterpret their behaviors. Be curious, not judgmental.

#2: Be accessible. Adopt an “open-door” policy. This allows colleagues to come in and have unscheduled conversations in which they can address issues, discuss projects, or seek guidance. You don’t need to support everyone all of the time. Be clear about your version of the “open-door” policy, and stick to it.

#3: Embrace feedback. Feedback is essential to development and requires that you hear it without letting your emotions get in the way. To enhance your ability to take feedback:

  • Think about the purpose.
  • Listen.
  • Show gratitude.
  • Take your time. Sort out your emotions and thoughts, then move forward.
  • Value the feedback.

#4: Develop trust. Consistently do what you say you’re going to do to create bonds with the people around you. To begin building trust:

  • Promote open communication and vulnerability.
  • Use your self-awareness. Identify relationships that lack trust, and figure out what’s missing.
  • Use your social awareness. Ask people what you can do to earn their trust. This shows that you genuinely want to bolster the relationship, which automatically begins to build trust.

Tactics That Help You Be Clear

#5: Improve your communication style. To better understand the way you communicate and the ways you can improve:

  • Identify your current style.
  • List the upsides and downsides of the way you communicate.
  • From your list of downsides, focus on two or three and figure out how you can adjust for them. Eliminate them, or find ways to reduce their impact.

#6: Avoid mixed messages. When you communicate, make sure the way you speak and your body language match what you’re trying to say.

#7: Explain your choices. Acknowledge any alternative routes, show your thought process, and explain the ways your decision will impact everyone.

Tactics That Help You Show Respect

#8: Make sure your intention matches your impact. If you mistime comments or fail to note the emotional state of your colleagues, your good intentions may end with unintended consequences. Respect the emotions of those around you, and assess situations before you act.

#9: Respect the emotions of others. Use your listening skills, ask what you can do to help, and be empathetic. This validates the feelings of the other person without exaggerating or exacerbating their emotional state.

#10: Use common courtesies. Say “please,” “thank you,” and “I apologize.” These phrases help you raise morale and connect to your colleagues through mutual respect and appreciation. They send constant reminders of consideration to the people you’re around.

#11: Show your appreciation. Little signals of appreciation can go a long way. When someone does good work, praise them. When they go the extra mile, acknowledge it.

Tactics That Help You Handle Tense Situations Effectively

#12: Only use anger intentionally. If you deliberately use anger as a tactic, it can effectively send a message. Use your anger as a tactic only when you feel like you have a masterful handle on your emotions:

  • Determine the degrees of your anger. You respond to something that annoys you differently than something that infuriates you. 
  • Only use your anger when it can improve the situation. Sometimes, anger can motivate people to perform better. Assess the situation first.

#13: Respond appropriately. Read the situation, watch for signals that indicate the emotional state of the person speaking to you, and respond in a way that respects their feelings. Don’t necessarily mirror the other person’s emotions.

#14: Use “fix-it” statements. When things start getting intense, avoid pointing fingers and focus on fixing the problem instead. “Fix-it” statements are neutral statements that refocus everyone’s attention toward the problem at hand and keep things from getting personal.

#15: Don’t put off the unavoidable. Sometimes, unavoidable scenarios arise that you aren’t entirely comfortable with. In these situations, develop strategies to approach your work effectively while keeping your emotions in check. When the scenario involves another person, be polite but direct.

#16: Give effective feedback. Effective feedback requires the use of all four EQ skills. Keep your emotions in check. Think about how this feedback might affect the recipient; consider their personality and current emotional state. Give your opinion and offer solutions in a way that doesn’t demoralize or infuriate them.

#17: Effectively navigate difficult conversations. Remain calm, show your empathy, and speak clearly:

  • Start on common ground with a shared goal or perspective.
  • Ask the other person to explain their perspective.
  • Listen rather than plan rebuttals.
  • Explain your perspective and reasoning to the person.
  • Keep the conversation moving toward resolution.
  • Check in frequently, and develop a plan to reestablish trust and remind the other person that you value them.

How to Create Emotionally-Intelligent Teams and Organizations

The authors of Primal Leadership explain that emotionally-intelligent leaders have the ability—and the responsibility—to spread this emotional intelligence to their team and organization.

Business and management experts second the authors’ argument, emphasizing that leaders are the foundation for organizational change. Leaders with emotional intelligence will spread their EI skills to their group members. And, because organizational culture is shaped by the actions and feelings of employees, this will work to change the organization’s culture. Ultimately, organizational change must start with leaders, move to teams, and then tackle the organization as a whole.

Here are the three steps for developing an emotionally-intelligent team.

Step 1: Identify Current EI Competencies of the Team

Examine how well each of your employees exhibits the EI skills and how prevalent these skills are in team interactions. Next, ask your employees to rate themselves and their team in the same categories. When an individual or the team scores low in a certain skill, question them about why they think that is.

This investigation will uncover the norms of the team that dictate how and why they act so you can determine which skill to work on.

Experts second the authors’ approach to improving team EI. They explain that both individual attention and group work are necessary to bring groups together as a cohesive whole. Working only one-on-one with individuals will prevent team relationships from forming, while working with only the collective team may leave individuals who need extra help behind, leading to discord.

Step 2: Identify the Ideal Vision of the Team, and Create a Plan of Action

Once you’ve uncovered the team reality, gather people’s individual visions of ideal emotionally-intelligent interactions so you can create team goals and a plan of action to achieve them.

Techniques to Explore EI

Management specialists explain that two activities you can do with your team to enhance EI are role-playing and storyboarding. Both of these techniques improve trust and participation.

When role-playing, members take on others’ opinions and interaction styles, helping everyone in the team understand why that person may be acting the way they do. With storyboarding, each member writes their ideas and feelings on a small poster.

Step 3: Create an Emotionally-Intelligent Organization

The authors of Primal Leadership explain that, once you’ve created emotionally-intelligent teams, you can move on to implement EI throughout the organization. Emotionally-intelligent organizations have a culture and set of norms that are founded on five components: truth, transparency, integrity, empathy, and healthy relationships.

The authors note that changing an organization’s culture is hard, but they recommend a few steps to do so:

  1. Uncover the emotional and cultural reality of the organization by asking employees at all levels of the organization open-ended questions. These questions should explore what employees care about, like, and dislike in the organization, and what’s helping or hindering their success. Within their answers, shared language will emerge that’ll uncover the underlying feelings, complex norms, and overall culture of the organization—in other words, the emotional reality.
  2. Uncover the ideal emotional and cultural climate of the organization by asking employees how they think the organization should incorporate the five components into daily functions and interactions. The shared language that emerges will generate goals and will motivate people to change by tapping into their hopes for the future.
  3. Bring the ideal culture to life by getting people—leaders and employees—emotionally involved. A great way to do this, the authors explain, is to bring people together to share a unique experience that highlights the new culture you want for the company. For example, you can bring employees together to watch an inspirational movie that illustrates the five components and have a discussion afterward.
  4. Make these changes sustainable by ensuring that emotionally-intelligent leaders who uphold the five components are present at every level of the organization. Further, make the development of emotionally-intelligent leaders and employees an ongoing process—continue training people in EI and hire people who are emotionally intelligent.

Wrapping Up

It’s vital for everyone to have emotional intelligence, but it’s especially important when you’re a leader. With these practical recommendations, you can take your EI to a higher level and influence those you lead for the better.

Emotional Intelligence in Leadership: Your Most Important Asset

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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